In just a few hours, one of the top-10 greatest NBA players, Kobe Bean Bryant, will take the floor one last time in his illustrious career, riding off into the sunset and leaving us all with both good and bad memories from his 20 years wearing the purple and gold of the L.A. Lakers.
With so much coverage surrounding The Black Mamba today after the Internet proclaimed it #MambaDay, the in-depth story from ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan is the one that caught my attention the most, as it paints an amazing picture of who Bryant wanted to become on the basketball court.
Seeking advice from some of his idols as a rookie until today, Kobe had a couple of interactions that MacMullan talked about that were too awesome not to share—with his interactions with both Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson being tops on that list.
Here’s an excerpt from the ESPN piece:
In 1996, his rookie year with the Lakers, his teammates scoffed at the aloof teenager who treated every possession like Armageddon. When they said he was too serious about basketball, Kobe wondered how that was even possible. When they dubbed him Showboat, he sought out his general manager, Jerry West, who urged Kobe to resist style over substance. Showboat, West told him, was a moniker for guys who didn’t play the right way: “Stop trying to do too much.” West says what he did not do was condemn Kobe for being detached from his teammates. He couldn’t. “Talk about an isolated teammate,” West recalls, “I was much the same way.”
Following his rookie campaign, Bryant was working out in a Venice Beach gym that summer when he got a call from an unexpected person, Michael Jackson, with the King of Pop providing his own advice to the then 19-year-old Bryant:
“Hi, it’s Michael,” the voice on the line says.
Bryant is incredulous. Kobe has never spoken to Michael Jackson before. It doesn’t sound like the King of Pop; the voice is lower, subdued, devoid of the childlike whisper Jackson uses onstage. “He’s calling me out of the f—— blue,” Bryant remembers now. “I don’t think it’s a real phone call.”
It is. It turns out Jackson has been studying the young Bryant from afar, and he has called to offer advice, one idiosyncratic phenom to another.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Jackson implores him. “Don’t come back to the pack and be normal for the sake of blending in with others. Don’t dumb it down.”
“You’ve got to study all the greats,” Jackson tells Kobe. “You’ve got to learn what made them successful and what made them unsuccessful.”
It’s a bit of an odd pairing, but with both being outliers in their own right, it makes sense that the two click, with Bryant taking a few trips to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch over their years of friendship.
Years later during the 2004-05 season, Bryant—who’s intensity and game is only exceeded by Michael Jordan—gave MJ a call after Kobe made one of his teammates, Sasha Vujacic, cry, wondering if he may have taken his competitiveness too far.
Jordan gave him about as straightforward an answer as possible.
“Sometimes you have to be an asshole,” says Jordan today when asked about that conversation. “Sometimes your teammates are going to hate you, but all the guys I went after—Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler—they won multiple championships, so I’m pretty sure they understand.”
Both Kobe and Jordan had developed a relationship early on, as Bryant got to first meet his idol during a Sixers-Bulls game while he was still just a 17-year-old high-schooler, with the friendship expanding from then on.
In my lifetime, at 31 years old, there are only a handful of athletes who are as polarizing and successful as Kobe Bryant. While he has his deficiencies and faults, it’s stories like this that remind us all that what we’ve witnessed over the past 20 years is something that should be appreciated, with Kobe Bryant earning our respect as a basketball player and for how he continued to strive towards unattainable perfection.
And who would’ve ever thought people like Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan would be such a key influence in that?